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Susan Cooklin on life before Network Rail, introducing smartphone technology and change at Route Services

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Describing what Route Services does is no easy task. Established in January 2016 to create a central provider of services to Network Rail’s geographical Routes, the specialist division has bases all over the country. It oversees tamping; the supply and associated logistics of materials such as ballast, rail and sleepers; lifts and escalators; recycling; air surveys; and road and rail fleets. This eclectic pick ’n’ mix includes back office functions such as contracts, procurement, IT and payroll and, following the completion of Network Rail’s ‘Putting Passengers First’ reorganisation, services such as asset information.

In total, by the end of this year, Route Services will provide around 80 services to the Routes. That change could see its employee headcount  grow to 4,600 – that’s around about 11 per cent of the organisation’s entire workforce – and strengthen its position as Network Rail’s backbone.

Computer pro

In charge of the unit is Susan Cooklin, an accountancy student turned IT project manager who has led Route Services since its inception.

“If you had told me at the age of 18 that this is the job I would be doing now, I would have said ‘Don’t be ridiculous’,” said Susan, who admits to having limited ambitions at university.

The daughter of an accountant, Susan studied economics and accounting at Aberystwyth University with the intention of joining the family firm in Leicester. There was one issue with the plan, however – she hated accounting. So, two years into her training, Susan returned home to reconsider her career.

Susan Cooklin with Network Rail colleagues Francis Paonessa (L) and Toufic Machnouk (R) during Christmas works of 2016.

“I just thought – ‘Why am I doing this? I’ve been sitting exams since I was seven, I’m doing more exams, and I’m really not enjoying it.’

“Bizarrely, in the accountancy exams, there were five papers, and the one I could do – which everyone else found difficult – was an audit and systems paper. So, I went back to Leicester to think about what I wanted to do and, whilst I was there, someone approached me who worked for British Shoe Corporation.”

As one of five girls who undertook a pilot computing science A-Level at her sixth form, Susan had developed an interest in computers and was taken on by the now-defunct retail group, which included footwear brands such as Dolcis, Olympus Sports and Saxone, as a business systems analyst.

“That’s been the secret of my success, because they trained me very well there,” she added. “In the 1980s, a business systems analyst would look at a business requirement, define that requirement and pass it over to a systems analyst, who would code it and come up with different systems options.”

A couple of years later Susan joined Leeds Permanent Building Society (it later merged with the Halifax), which marked the beginning of an 18-year spell in financial services. 

After moving from Leicester to Leeds and then to London, Susan tackled increasingly larger IT projects until, as a senior executive, she was faced with saving £200 million at Barclays and decided to add herself to the list of cutbacks. A shifting culture from retail to investment banking was the motivating factor.

“I thought I would go into another banking job but someone I’d worked for said: ‘Would you be interested in Network Rail?’”, said Susan, referring to Catherine Doran, former chief information officer at Network Rail. “I said: ‘I don’t even know what they do’. That’s how much I knew about the rail industry 13 years ago. I went and had a look and thought it was really interesting because it had all of the things I like: it was difficult, big and complex.”

Joining Network Rail as head of IT delivery in 2006 proved to be a good move as the financial crisis hit three years later.

Controller of site safety (COSS) training in the virtual world. Training, which sits within the business services department, is also overseen by Route Services. Photo: Network Rail.

IT at Network Rail

The IT infrastructure of the banks she had worked with was broadly similar to Network Rail’s. However, one major difference was the certainty around funding. The highly competitive commercial banking environment meant IT projects were often shelved if cuts had to be made, whereas control periods brought greater stability. 

As the head of IT delivery, Susan oversaw what she described as a big portfolio of between 50-60 projects, worth a total of up to £70 million each year, but there was one area of her responsibilities that stood out from the rest.

“When I was looking after IT, I used to say: ‘The most important thing is the information on the passenger information screens’. If that information was not on the screens at Euston station, that would be down to me.”

Susan confessed this did go wrong once, in 2009, when an error with the mainframe system caused passenger information boards to freeze as the afternoon peak was about to begin. Although it did cause disruption, there wasn’t a big reaction to it in the media. Susan puts this down to the fact social media was in its infancy, although she doesn’t like to talk about the system blip – “Let’s not tempt fate!” she said.

Promoted to group chief information officer in 2009, Susan was then appointed to lead Route Services when it was founded in 2016. 

If overseeing that division wasn’t enough, Susan chairs Network Rail Consulting, is one of 13 members on Network Rail’s executive team, sponsors the company’s internal diversity network Inspire and steers the company’s mental health and wellbeing group – a cause close to her heart“.

“I’m clearly good at multi-tasking,” she added. “I thought I would stay here for three years and then go back to banking, but I guess I fell in love with the industry, which is why I’m still here 12 years later.”

Photo: Network Rail.

Technological change

Susan, who has twice been recognised by Computer Weekly magazine as one of the most influential women in UK IT, said that the best you get with IT is either no noise or a business transformation by introducing an innovative system. 

Although she admits IT systems haven’t changed as much as she would have liked during her time at Network Rail, there have been some standout successes. This includes remote condition monitoring as part of the move to intelligent infrastructure and the rollout of i-devices technology between 2012-14.

Initially only board members were issued with iPads but, thanks to the work of Susan and Patrick Bossert, who used to run asset information, they were distributed further.

Susan said: “Once that infrastructure was out there, we had an uplift in the sharing of information, and it’s helped with cultural change stuff and safety.”

The inclusion of a safety app, one of the first to be installed on all iPads, for immediate close call reporting, is one such example. The application of Apple’s tablet computers in a business setting was so successful, and ahead of others, that it was showcased on Apple’s global website as a case study.

Change in IT over the years has resulted in Network Rail collecting petabytes of data (1,024 terabytes).

Susan said: “Our enterprise systems solutions – all the things that help the company run, like payroll, accounts payable, and accounts receivable, which is called our Oracle e-business suite – is the the largest installation in Europe.”

Complicating matters further is that the data Network Rail manages at one point in the day becomes another company’s responsibility at another. 

She explained: “If you take something like the timetable, at the start of the day the data is Network Rail’s, because we load the timetable. As you go through the day and there is perturbation, we’re updating something called the CIS system, which sits with RDG and the train operating companies – so you don’t own the systems for the end-to-end process. So it’s big and it’s complicated and it’s either millions of transactions across millions of types of assets or its millions of information around customers or customer information – it’s massive.”

Work-life balance 

After exceeding her (as she puts it) limited ambitions, Susan, a mother-of-one, also managed to tackle her belief she wouldn’t be able to become a senior leader as well as a mother. 

“I kept thinking – how will I do the children bit and have a successful career? Because it’s a really hard thing. 

“When I was at NatWest, there was a female senior executive who was a director of strategy. She gave one of these talks I now do, and she looked immaculate and she was wearing this Armani suit, and said ‘I’ve got this nanny and I’ve got this and I’ve got that’. I thought – rubbish! But actually she made me think about it because she had two children and she had managed to be very successful.

“That’s why female role models are so important, because you have to have examples of women that have done it.”

Susan has continued full-time work and credits her husband’s flexible working arrangements for being able to support their family. 

“To say it has been easy would not be right. We’ve had various difficulties when my son was ill, where I ended up having to take a career break to look after him. You can’t keep all of these things in balance, they get out of balance and, sometimes, the career takes over from the home and, sometimes, the home takes over from the career. I don’t think it’s easy.”

The High Output ballast cleaner, aerial survey helicopter, long welded rail depots (Eastleigh pictured) and material handling depots (Whitemoor pictured) all come under Susan Cooklin’s responsibility at Route Services. Photos: Network Rail.

Route change

Returning to Route Services, as well as taking on hundreds of new members of staff, Susan has been tasked with making the unit more passenger-focused as part of Network Rail’s organisational changes. 

This shift builds on the work she’s already undertaken to make Route Services more customer-focused, for the regions, but the two aren’t quite the same. 

“We started off in a good space because I put in a strategy of being customer-focused – doing what our internal customers want, which should make the external customers happy, which should then make passengers happy if everybody’s got that all aligned,” she explained. 

“What we’ve got to do now is really move to being very passenger-focused, which isn’t quite the same thing. What we’ve done is a review of the 60 services, plus the ones  that are coming in, and we asked which ones would really make an impact on passengers. Things like lifts and escalators and information on the boards.”

She added: “I’d like to get everyone settled in from November. The key priority for me for the next 12-18 months is to really get the Route Services function passenger-focused. It is a cultural change for us and that’s where I want us to get to.”